My Wild Night in Brussels

I thought that staying near the Brussels airport after close to a week in Flanders was a smart move. I was going to do serious sight-seeing in Ghent and Antwerp and had been to Brussels several times before. By the time I got to Brussels, I would be tired and all I’d want was a comfortable place to repack my bags, snooze, and have a last good meal.

I did not expect riot police.

But here’s what happened first:

No one at the hotel told me that the “few minutes” from the train station closest to my hotel were all uphill and also involved a couple of staircases connected to a highway underpass, followed by more uphill schlepping of my roll-aboard. Then the check-in clerk took my reservation for a 4AM airport shuttle the next morning but didn’t inform me that my room rate included a breakfast bag—I found out what I was missing from other riders en route to Zaventem Airport when it was too late.

My room hadn’t been dusted well, but then neither was the hotel restaurant, which also had a chunk missing from the wall near where I had a meal. Maybe a hungry diner had taken a bite out of it while waiting—my dinner took way too long to arrive, even by European standards. But I figured the good wine I drank would knock me out for a few hours of sleep.

I woke near midnight wondering if climate change had somehow made Belgium prone to earthquakes, because my bed and the walls were shaking.

It took me a minute to realize the culprit was thumping bass from a party somewhere in the hotel. The noise only got worse and I knew sleep wasn’t an option. Sitting down at the desk to catch up with email, I could feel my chair practically move with the beat of the one song whose lyrics I could make out: “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.”

[Insert ironic comment here]

I was more than happy to leave, but when I got to the lobby at 3:45am, I found it filled with Belgian police in their distinctive bilingual vests.

Police cars were parked outside as if this were a crime scene. One cop in the lobby was wrestling with a drunken shouting woman he was trying to eject from the hotel. Other young revelers in tuxes and short sequined dresses were loitering drunkenly in the lobby and outside. One couple fled from an elevator as if being chased by the zombies in World War Z.

I asked a policeman in French what had happened and he said there had been a “fight” and was reluctant to say anything else. In all the confusion and clamor, there was only one man at the hotel desk, and the police seemed to be lined up partly to prevent the counter from being stormed.

I’ll never know all the details of what happened, but the chaos was a gift: For writers, everything is material.

Lev Raphael has been to Europe many times. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch. He’s the author of 26 books including the memoir/travelogue My Germany and most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

3 Things Nobody Tells You About The Writing Life

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set. I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents. But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like. When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned three key things the hard way.

1–You need to accept from the start that you have very little control. You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times. Other books just like it will swamp yours. Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales. Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know. So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it. And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business. It always was and always will be. Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in. Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertise in conference programs. Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours. There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful. But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole. It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere. Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

3–The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around. Let’s face it, are you? Ask your significant other. As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life. If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests. Travel. Learn to play an instrument. Study a foreign language. Garden. Train for a triathalon. Get a dog. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empty. And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop. Normal people can be interesting, too.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com after over 15 years of university teaching.  He’s authored 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Re-reading My Favorite Authors Makes Me A Better Writer

When I’m on a book tour fans often ask me “What are you reading?”  I get the same question when I teach a creative writing workshop or master class like I just did at Oakland University, sponsored by Rochester Writers.  I’m often reading books that will inspire me to write and lately I’ve been-re-reading favorite authors like Martin Cruz Smith.  His novels set after the fall of the Soviet Union explore a country that’s just as cruel and dangerous, but one where oligarchs are becoming swollen with daring, arrogance, and billions in wealth.

In Three Stations there’s a gigantic contrast between diamond-studded luxury goods and homeless kids stealing whatever they can to survive in the heart of Moscow. Arkady Renko is a disgraced police investigator with a clear eye for what’s happening around him and a dedication to justice. Though he’s the son of a famous general and communist, he is truly an outsider because he won’t follow orders. I’m really glad I missed this one somehow as I worked through the series, because I found it really inspiring.

And for authors who struggle with writing good sex scenes, he dispatches one in a brilliant paragraph that could be a model for anyone. It inspired me in my stand-alone currently about 200 pages along which will be my 28th book.

I’m also re-reading luminous, thrilling mystery novels by C.S. Harris set in Regency England, starting with Why Kings Confess, one of my favorites in the series.  These books feature nobleman Sebastian St. Cyr who has access to all levels of society and is indefatigable in solving any crime that he comes across and intrigues him.  He’s a dashing figure with almost magically keen eyesight and hearing, and a man not remotely averse to challenging the rich and powerful.  Harris is brilliant at evoking the period through appealing to sight, sound, and smells–you can almost taste the acrid fog that’s so much a part of the era when coal was burned indiscriminately.  Who even thought of climate disruption back then?

The two authors are very different in setting, tone, and prose style.  Harris is more sensual, Cruz is more spare.  Cruz’s books ooze cynicism about old and new Russia’s corruption and greed, while Harris fields a sleuth who serves justice and believes it exists.  Both authors evoke their time and place with dazzling detail and tell fast-paced, gripping stories.

I learned years ago in my writing career that what could stimulate and inspire my work was a creative clash of voices and styles.  Reading these two different authors again right now has made me very productive: I wrote two chapters of my next mystery in under a week.  This method of reading different writers in succession might not work for everyone, and that’s something I tell all my writing students and workshop participants: find what works for you.  But whether you’re a writer or not, C.S. Harris and Martin Cruz Smith are authors you should add to your TBR pile.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.  He teaches online writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

On Father’s Day I Remember My Father in the Kitchen

Father’s Day is about six months off from Hannukah, but it always makes me think of my father’s potato pancakes.

Made in a large, battered cast iron pan, these latkes were always perfect: crisp outside, juicy inside, delicious whether served with sour cream, sugar, apple sauce, or just plain.

I loved to watch my father cook, as patient as a scientist, as skilled as a musician playing a piece he’s performed more times than he can remember. Sometimes he even made what he called a potato babka: pouring the batter into a large loaf pan and baking it. The word itself still makes my mouth water decades later, though my own kitchen will never be filled with that aroma.

I’ve used all kinds of pans, potatoes and onions over the years, but have never been able to duplicate his latkes, not even with his advice. I’m not just being nostalgic and romanticizing the past. Back then, my mother said her latkes were never as good as his, and she had learned to cook in Belgium.

Did he consult a cookbook or was he remembering a recipe he had learned at home in eastern Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust? No, he just worked instinctively with the onions and potatoes, the flour, eggs, salt and pepper.

Years later, in a college course where we read Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, I learned a wonderful Italian word: sprezzatura. It was the art that concealed all art, the ability to do things flawlessly without betraying any effort. While my father was no Renaissance man — I don’t remember him ever cooking much of anything else — perhaps sprezzatura was a secret ingredient of those latkes.

And perhaps I tried too hard to match him, longed too deeply to recreate a moment in time that looked like magic and felt like a feast. These days, I don’t worry about equaling what he did, I just enjoy the memory of the love and dedication, the patience, and the sights and smells of my father loving his sons without words.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.

Why Did I Start a Mystery Series With a Gay Sleuth?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine for the author. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.